In Washington, Marion Barry’s old neighborhood turns whiter and more affluent


Pbilip Langdon

New Urban Network

“The modest brick rowhouse, painted white with black trim, is similar to the other handsome homes that line E Street on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill,” The Washington Post observes at the start of an article describing how one city neighborhood has changed over the past decade.

“Once it was a place of local political royalty, at the center of a neighborhood that symbolized African American ascendance in Washington, D.C.,” The Post says of East Capitol Hill. Marion Barry lived there when he was first elected mayor in 1978. Now his house is occupied by a white couple with two young children.

East Capitol Hill is a neighborhood of flat, quiet streets and brick rowhouses — many with matching cone-like peaks — just over a mile east of Union Station. As recently as 2000, its population was 84 percent black and 12 percent white, but by 2010, sizable changes had occurred. Blacks dropped to 44 percent of the population, while whites rose to 47 percent.

The racial shift makes East Capitol Hill representative in some ways of what’s happened to Washington in recent years. As Washington’s population rose by nearly 30,000 during the decade, to 601,723, the number of African Americans living in the District dropped by 39,000. Blacks now make up 50 percent of the population, The Post points out, while whites have grown to 35 percent, and Hispanics have edged up to 9 percent.

Cities are always changing, and whether the changes are good or bad depends to a large degree on the individual’s own perspective. The Post tries to capture views both from blacks and from whites.

“At one time, the neighborhood was close-knit,” said Joanna Willis, a 64-year-old African-American nurse. “It’s not that way anymore.”

By contrast, Ginny Madison, who is white, said that five years ago the police were constantly raiding the house across from hers. “Now there are new residents and the raids have ceased,” the newspaper noted. Dropping her three-year-old daughter off at a Montessori school, Madison recalled that two summers ago “I looked around and said, ‘Oh, it’s all of us walking around.'”

“All of us” mostly means young professionals with children, the majority of them white. Though some blacks are less than happy about this, other blacks indicated they don’t have a problem with the changes that have arrived. Kionna Stephen, a 39-year-old African-American real estate agent, told The Post she views the neighborhood’s racial evolution as a favorable development, particularly for her two young children.

“It’s a diverse world we live in, and it exposes them to something other than themselves,” Stephen said. “It’s good for everyone.”

Physically, East Capitol Hill has improved. “A vacant lot once commandeered by vagrants is now occupied by a condominium building,” the paper observed. “There are carefully tended forsythias and hyacinths blooming in the yards and Subarus and Mini Coopers parked on streets lined with freshly painted houses.” There is even a new dog park, its bricks engraved with tributes to various canines.

“The upkeep is better, there’s better trash service, street cleaning, police protection,” Willis said of the neighborhood. There is not a lot of bitterness in the comments made to The Post by East Capitol Hill’s black residents, though some people feel they haven’t benefited as much as higher-income people have.

“There are a lot of people stuck on hurt,” said Furard Tate, the African-American owner of a food services management company. “I tell them, find the positive solution. Fix up the house or sell it or do something. Complaining is a waste of time.”

Q&A with a census expert

When readers of The Post were given an opportunity to ask questions of Roderick J. Harrison, former chief of the Racial Statistics Branch of the US Census Bureau, variations in Washingtonians’ attitudes about how DC is evolving came through strongly.

One person posed a question this way: “If the proportion of affluent, well-educated residents increases, will it mean less attention to the very real needs of the area’s poorer and less educated residents? Or, may this be an arena where changing demographics portends a shift in governance and public policy that has yet to arrive? My hope is that this demographic shift will be accompanied by a more pluralistic form of governance that addresses as broad a range of social needs as possible, regardless of income or education levels, but I fear that these changes will only contribute to a reluctance to close income and educational gaps.”

Harrison, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Howard University, replied that Washington “is the most polarized city by education and income in the nation,” with strong racial and ethnic divides. “Policy has been ineffective in closing these gaps, and might remain so,” he said. Efforts to overcome the gaps have been “largely through workforce development strategies that have proven weak against job market trends,” he said, adding that he hopes a community college would help improve the situation.

Another person posed this question: “I’ve seen separate articles reporting on signifcant black migration out of Chicago, Detroit and now D.C. Each one has had a slightly alarmed tone, suggesting that the drop in population is necessarily a bad thing. But is it? Why is this movement any different than any other demographic shift that’s taken place in the country over the past 150 years?”

Harrison responded: “It probably isn’t ‘bad,’ except perhaps for politicians who may rely on high concentrations for elections.  Some of the outmigration is to suburbs, which might represent upward mobility or better housing/neighborhoods.  Others seem to be migrating to the South and West, where job growth has been better than in the East and Midwest — so yes, this might reflect pursuit of social and economic opportunities.” The black exodus from Washington is heading primarily to Prince George’s County, Maryland, which is on the city’s border.

On income-level disparity, one reader asked: “Does the Census show whether the rich are getting richer, and the poor, poorer?” Harrison replied: “Yes — and this has been the trend for at least 3 decades now.”

“Some people worry about the fact that the African American population is a smaller part of the city’s overall population,” another person asked. “How do you interpret the change?”

Harrison’s reply: “It reflects the fact that DC is one of the strongest job markets for college grads (it has the highest % of BAs in the nation), and the outmigration of black from the poorer wards in the city — perhaps reflecting socio-economic mobility.  So, the change might be disturbing to some, but it’s driven by essentially positive forces.” He pointed out that the proportion of educated people in Washington is increasing “because the federal government and other industries in DC (including IT) have high demands for college educated (and up) workers.”

What was the biggest surprise the census generated, another reader wondered. “I’m not sure that it was entirely unforeseen,” Harrison replied, “but the rapidity of the racial change is striking — by historical standards — when you see the numbers literally in black and white.”

“At the current pace, blacks will lose majority status [in Washington] in 5 or so years,” Harrison noted.  “It could be some time before whites become a majority given the Hispanic and Asian populations in DC.”

“Is there such a thing as a reduction in crime and an increase in living standards (i.e., education) without ‘gentrification’?” one reader asked. “Has that happened anywhere….?”

Harrison answered: “Yes — in fact we can point to dozens of neighborhoods in dozens of cities where crime rates declined in the 1990’s and the past decade — it just doesn’t make the news in the same way that gentrification, with its potential for conflict, does.”